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AsiaTimes: All roads lead to 'reformasi'
By Kapal Berita

7/11/2000 10:11 pm Tue

Source: Asia Times :

From Asia Times Online
6th November 2000


All roads lead to 'reformasi'

By Anil Netto

Nothing like it has ever been seen in Malaysia. Amid extraordinary scenes, tens of thousands of opposition supporters heading for a cordoned-off rally site outside Kuala Lumpur on Sunday found themselves in a massive traffic jam that soon turned into an impromptu highway "reformasi" demonstration that stretched more than five kilometers.

It was the biggest demonstration within the greater Kuala Lumpur area against the 19-year rule of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad since the huge protests in the capital on September 20, 1998, the day former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was arrested.

Thousands of cars and vans choked all highways leading to Jalan Kebun, near Shah Alam, the capital of central Selangor state, despite stern warnings from the authorities to stay away. Traffic came to a standstill and almost everyone got out of their vehicles and "took over" the Kesas highway as a helicopter clattered helplessly overhead trying to gauge the scale of the protest.

In the hours leading to the rally, hundreds of security personnel staged a major show of force to block the rally, which was declared illegal. Organizers, who had twice applied for a permit to use the National Stadium only to be refused permission, decided to go ahead with it anyway, on private property.

Later, police used water cannon and fired tear gas into the "frontline" demonstrators, forcing opposition party leaders to leave the scene as soon as they had finished their speeches.

By day's end, when the crowd had dispersed, no one could be sure how many had turned up for the event, billed "The 100,000 Gathering: Restore the People's Rights". No one, save for those in the helicopter, could see the entire sea of humanity, which was spread by police cordons into various nearby locations. At least 50,000 people were involved, while some insist the figure surpassed 100,000.

The organizers were elated. The evening before, police had detained six demonstrators in a chilling warning of what "reformasi" supporters could expect if they turned up. Newspapers and television had quoted the authorities as saying that those who took part on Sunday would be harshly dealt with.

In jubilant mood after the gathering was Saari Sungib, chairman of the event's organizing committee. Saari apparently had to disguise himself with a scarf and helmet and ride a motorcycle to the ceramah to avoid detection. "We would like to claim we got 100,000. This is the first time in the history of Malaysia that the people could walk all over and sit on a major highway," he told Asia Times Online.

That they did. Never has there been such a Malaysian traffic jam in which so many people were smiling and laughing. One family spread newspapers on the road and had a picnic. Another group of about half a dozen Muslim men prayed, their foreheads touching the road. A young Malay lad walked around with a tray selling drinks. Another couple sold copies of the opposition Rocket newspaper from the back of their car. Others chanted "Reformasi!" and "Undur, undur; undur Mahathir!" ("Resign, resign; resign, Mahathir!) Strangers greeted each other with the "thumbs-up" sign.

Groups of young men stood on the concrete road divider holding large banners proclaiming "Reformasi has taken over the Kesas highway". Some saw a deeper meaning in the highway takeover: many grumble about highway tolls, arguing that Mahathir's privatization policy has not benefited ordinary Malaysians, who have to pay ever-increasing road tolls and utility rates.

The crowd was largely ethnic Malay, many with entire families in tow, but groups of young Chinese and Indian Malaysians - some university students, others activists - could also be seen among them. Not everyone looked happy though. When asked what was happening, one Malay man replied sourly, "It looks like some kind of pesta (carnival)." Others remained in their vehicles, caught up in something they didn't quite understand. But they were a tiny minority.

No matter that most of the "reformasi" supporters could not be at the actual ceramah (forum) site. There, the leaders of the four main opposition parties - Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail of keADILan (the National Justice Party), Fadzil Noor of PAS (the Islamic Party), Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party, and Syed Husin Ali of Parti Rakyat Malaysia (Malaysian People's Party) - were delivering speeches. As soon as they had finished, police fired tear gas into the crowd. Azizah, in a wheelchair due to a recent leg injury, was immediately surrounded by a human shield, lifted out of her wheelchair and whisked to safety.

"As we were telling them [the crowd] to leave, the police ambushed us," Azizah was quoted as saying. "The crowd was very quiet."

As the crowd from the ceramah site returned along the Kesas highway with banners draped around them, they were greeted with more cries of "Refomasi!" by those on the other side of the road who had been unable to reach the rally. On an overpass, a group thumped a metal billboard which read, ironically: "Malaysia Milik Kita: Teruskan Tradisi Ini" ("Malaysia is Ours: Continue this Tradition").

But amid the euphoria emerged news of the price some had to pay. More than 100 people were detained and rights activists said they only had the names of about 40 of them. News reports said police were seen kicking and beating some detainees as they led them away while damaging some cars and motorbikes with their batons. One Internet news-site reporter said his roll of film was confiscated. Among the pictures was one of an opposition supporter with head injuries.

Cynthia Gabriel, an organizing committee member at the scene, said: "We honor the brave people of Malaysia who displayed tremendous courage despite the odds, despite the intimidation, despite all the negative propaganda. We support their right to peacefully assemble, to peacefully express dissent and their call for reforms and change." She expressed hope that all those arrested would be released unconditionally as "their only crime was to exercise their constitutional rights".

Elizabeth Wong, of the human rights group Hakam (Malaysian Human Rights Society), observed: "The fact that the Malaysian police reacted in such a repressive manner shows that they have not learned their lessons ... More importantly, the 100,000 people who turned up today represent the majority of Malaysians who are saying 'enough is enough' to abuse of state power."

For keADILan, which spearheaded the event, the turnout was a tremdenous boost. Long in the shadows of PAS, it proved that it continues to have a significant following across the country. Thousands had converged along the highway from other states on the peninsula. "The previous night nearly all the budget hotels around Kuala Lumpur were heavily booked," keADILan secretary-general Mohd Anuar Tahir told Asia Times Online. More importantly, it was a psychological victory for the opposition Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front) coalition after months of cementing inter-party ties.

"This is the beginning of the end for Mahathir," said one rights activist. "I give him 15 months at the most." Well, maybe, maybe not - after all, Mahathir is the ultimate survivor. But even he must be concerned.

One thing is clear. Those who felt that "reformasi" would fade away with time have been proven wrong in a way that could not have been more emphatic.